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Cult Nostalgia: 'The X-Files' (1993-2002)

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Cult Nostalgia: 'The X-Files' (1993-2002)
Premise

Two FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate paranormal events as part of the government’s top-secret ‘X-Files’. Mulder is determined to prove the existence of extra terrestrials much to the sceptical Scully’s bemusement. The deeper they dig, the more damning evidence they appear to uncover about a top-secret cover-up conspiracy… but is the truth really out there?

Overview

Screened on weeknights on BBC2 in 1994, the first series of this American import quickly gathered viewers due to word of mouth spreading round playgrounds and workplaces all over the country.

Viewers were hooked in by the escapism. The UK was sorely lacking in imaginative shows, with the television landscape dominated by soaps, sitcoms and police/medical dramas. By sharing in the adventures of ‘chalk and cheese’ FBI Agents Mulder and Scully, viewers were transported into a world where mutated blood-sucking fluke worms roam the sewers and liver-eating murderers can contort their bodies to fit through tiny spaces.

In the early days, most episodes were stand-alone and followed the same loose pattern. A bizarre event takes place that police can’t explain, with our two leads drafted in to investigate. Mulder, along with the viewer, puts it down to either supernatural or extraterrestrial activity. Scully almost starts to believe, but evidence proves either inconclusive, vanishes or a scientific explanation is found.

Away from the gory blood-sucking or shape-shifting creatures, viewers were absorbed by the ‘will they-won’t they’ relationship between the two agents, in a similar vein to the Ross-Rachel and Niles-Daphne situations on Friends and Frasier respectively. The fact that both Mulder and Scully kept their emotions – and bodies – closely under wraps didn’t stop endless speculation about their relationship.

‘Laconic’ was a word often attributed to the character of Fox Mulder, such was his laid back demeanour. Subsequently, plenty of debates arose as to whether Duchovny could act or not. In hindsight, a point in his favour is his portrayal of transvestite FBI Agent Denis/Denise Bryson in the second season of Twin Peaks.

And then there's the theme tune. Mark Snow's eerie creation could be heard everywhere throughout the mid nineties. Any remotely spooky item on the news seemed to be accompanied by some whistling variation of the theme. But the song is synonymous with those mysterious opening credits, where each week a phrase like "Trust No One", "I Want to Believe" or, most famously, "The Truth Is Out There" would cryptically flash up. The pre-credits ‘teaser’ sequences would quickly reel the viewer in and the spooky theme would fully immerse them into this fantastical world.

An intriguing mix of supporting characters were on hand to be scrutinised for their integrity and true motives. The FBI’s Assistant Director Walter Skinner was a prominent figure, often coming to the aid of our agents yet clearly under the thumb of the shady Cigarette Smoking Man, whose ties to Mulder’s family would unravel as the series wore on. Mulder relied on two government confidantes for top-secret information – Deep Throat and X – and their grizzly demises showed just how dangerous the quest for truth was.

By the third season, the show had clearly leaped out of its ‘cult’ constraints and bashed its way into the mainstream consciousness. The opportunists at the BBC saw an opportunity and switched the programme to their main channel – a huge accolade, but one that infuriated many fans as episodes were cut or their order changed around.

Sky One nabbed the rights to screen the episodes first, causing a decrease in the buzz around new episodes. When screened on terrestrial television the episodes didn’t feel so fresh knowing that others down your street or in your class had devoured the episodes months before. Watching genre shows like this it’s great to know that there’s an air of expectation in the air at a certain time. Nowadays you know families will be huddling together on Saturdays at 7pm when Doctor Who is on.

As with every rose that comes into bloom, there follows the inevitable wilting. And boy, was there some serious wilt after The X-Files reached its popularity peak around the third season.

In the schedules, as viewers drifted away, the show was bumped from a midweek BBC One slot to late on Saturday nights - when much of the target audience would be sat in some park guzzling their Hooch. The show was then unceremoniously shunted back to BBC2 in the latter years, not that anyone bar the hardcore fan noticed.

But the extreme lack of public interest in later seasons wasn't really the fault of the schedulers. In hindsight we can attribute the slump to the convoluted mythological arc that became increasingly prominent as the once brilliant series dragged on.

In the first few years viewers eagerly lapped up Mulder's desperate drive to expose the existence of aliens and outmanoeuvre the shadowy government figures. But all the back story became too frustrating and convoluted. Complex interwoven family histories, aliens that are really humans (or are they?), Mulder’s sister Samantha being abducted, seemingly dead then perhaps cloned – all this left plenty of viewers scratching out their follicles. Every question posed was answered by another question and viewers decided to spare their scalp by switching off.

The programme’s ability to stay in the public eye was always going to be doubtful. Providing answers could have had a similar result to Twin Peaks, whose viewing figures dwindled once Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed in the second series. So Chris Carter opted to keep stringing the audience along by seemingly providing answers around the third/fourth season only for more questions to rear their contorted little heads. Audiences became sick of the endless head scratching and fled.

There’s bound to be a few die hard X-File fans reading this and wondering – ‘what about the last few seasons – they’re still canon!’ Although not quite a conspiracy akin to the Cigarette Smoking Man’s endeavours, there are good reasons for glossing over the last four seasons or so – they were pretty lousy.

Duchovny left the cast at the end of the seventh season, making only occasional appearances in the final two years. Despite rumours to the contrary, Anderson stayed.
So far off the cultural radar were the last few seasons that many loyal viewers from the first few seasons probably still are oblivious to the fact that two new leads were dragged in to carry on the investigations. Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish as Special Agents John Doggett and Monica Reyes joined the show, but few except the loyal hardcore fans noticed.

The last episode entitled The Truth concluded in the early hours of Sunday, March 23, 2002 on BBC2 and only a small percentage of the many millions who had lapped up The X-Files just a few years later were watching.

Cultural significance

"Things are getting strange I’m starting to worry, This could be a case for Mulder and Scully."

If you remember those lyrics, you’ll remember the massive impact The X Files had on mid-90’s pop culture. Welsh band Catatonia had a massive hit with the song ‘Mulder and Scully’ in 1998 – which featured an X-Files inspired video. Composer Mark Snow also released the theme tune as a single, reaching number 2 in 1996.

The X-Files was responsible for several spin-offs, most notably the big screen production The X Files: Fight The Future which premiered after the show’s fifth season.

Fox Mulder’s conspiracy theorist hacker pals The Lone Gunmen were awarded with their own short-lived spin off series in 2001.

In 1996 Chris Carter constructed the series Millennium, starring Lance Henriksen as an investigator. Whilst not appearing to be a direct spin-off several events within the show suggested that they were set in the same fictional universe – a theory ultimately proved by Henriksen appearing as his Millennium character Frank Black in a season seven episode of The X-Files.

A number of films and television shows revolving around the emergence of extra terrestrials were also greenlit following the popularity of The X Files, most notably Dark Skies.

Legacy

"It's better to burn out than to fade away," said Kurt Cobain. Sadly, The X-Files fell firmly into the latter category. You can’t help but wonder that if the show had finished after three or four seasons – before the noticeable plunge in quality and viewer frustration – whether it would be held in better esteem nowadays.

We wonder what fate will befall Lost - a series that enthrals, thrills and infuriates viewers in a similar way to early X-Files

But The X-Files did show that television networks can invest money into a high budget – for a TV show – and still be commercially viable. The cinematic visual quality of the show paved the way for the big-budget series we have now, whilst making the medium more appealing to bigger name actors than before.

An inevitable revival for the show lies somewhere down the line, perhaps in the form of some terrestrial reruns or another movie. Hopefully then the mass public will remember the thrills and excitement they had gathering round the telly in the mid 90s - when it felt like everyone seemed to believe...
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